Tag Archives: Pale Blue Dot

Ineffable Images of the Space Age

by Shane L. Larson

The arrival of each new year always engenders a brief moment of reflection on how we all would like to improve and change our lives, and very often with a recounting of how transitory life actually is.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I was reflecting on the sad fact that on December 21, astronaut Bruce McCandless II passed away at the age of 80. He was a Naval Academy graduate who joined NASA in April 1966 as part of Astronaut Group 5.

McCandless joined NASA during the Apollo era, but never flew until the Space Shuttle era, logging 312 hours on two flights: STS-41-B aboard Challenger in 1984, and STS-31 aboard Discovery in 1990. It was on his first flight that he gained notoriety: he made the first untethered spacewalk in history, flying the MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) some 300 feet away from the Challenger. The image of McCandless, flying free over the Earth, has become one of the most iconic images of the Space Age.

Bruce McCandless, flying the MMU about 300 feet from the space shuttle Challenger during STS-41B in 1984. It was the first untethered spacewalk in history. [Image: NASA]

There is something timeless and awe-inspiring about this image. What is it? Is it the ever-blue curve of the Earth behind him? Is the loneliness of a single human, flying in the void far from any others? Is it the thrill of the the adventure or a surge of voyeuristic fear, the “fun thrill” letting your mind roll around how you would feel in that same situation? I think it is a little bit of all of those. Just show the image to some friends at your next dinner party and ask, “Would you do that?” or “Can you imagine?” and listen to the direction of the conversation!

When McCandless made his historic untethered spacewalk, I was in high school and dreamed of being an astronaut. I didn’t become an astronaut, and likely will never travel to space, but the dream lingers in my mind and surges forward every time I see images like this one.  This isn’t the only image from the Space Age that has such an effect on me. Some photographs, some moments suspended in time on celluloid or pixels, somehow capture ephemeral emotions that are indescribable by any other means.

Many such photographs come from the astronauts themselves. Astronauts have had a singular, unique experience that is transformative to their consciousness. Nothing molds a person’s worldview more dramatically than first hand experiences, there are no first hand experiences quite like those of the astronauts. They have seen the Cosmos, seen the world, from a perspective that the rest of us can only catch elusive glances of in stunning photographs delivered from the shoals of space.

Take a look at this photo. Almost exactly 49 years before Bruce McCandless passed away, the crew of Apollo 8 made the first voyage from the Earth to the Moon. They completed ten orbits around the Moon, and on their fourth orbit were the first humans ever to see the Earth emerging from behind the Moon — the first Earthrise ever witnessed by the human species.

“Earthrise” shot by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders on 24 December 1968. A recreation of the moment, with mission audio has been created by Goddard Spaceflight Center [Image: NASA]

The world first saw the image in the 10 January 1969 issue of Time Magazine, burning it indelibly into our collective consciousness.

Like so many moments captured on film and revisited with reverence and awe, the Earthrise photo was taken by chance; Apollo 8 just happened to be rolling at the moment, and the image just happened to be visible through the tiny windows on the front of the capsule. In retrospect, the moment could have been predicted, but every story told of that moment when Apollo 8 rounded the limb of the Moon describes the first sight of the Earth as an unexpected and ineffable moment — the first time in human history that we had ever seen our world in Cosmic context, behaving in relation to the rest of the Universe in ways that our minds had only previously considered for other worlds.

One of the most famous pictures returned from the Apollo missions was of Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint in the lunar soil, made and imaged by Aldrin to record the properties of the lunar soil. [Image: NASA]

Just seven months later, Apollo 11 made the first crewed landing on the surface of the Moon, leaving humanity’s first footsteps on another world. Buzz Aldrin famously took a photograph of his bootprint on the Moon to illustrate the behaviour of the lunar surface soil; it is an image that is universally recognized as being from our first journey to another world. Most of us have made footprints, in snow or mud or soft dirt. Often alongside many other footprints, a cacophony of shapes and patterns, each one a remnant of a journey from somewhere to elsewhere. The next time we cross that particular trail or particular riverbank, the prints have changed and tell new tales of new journeys. But the footprints on the Moon are different — so far, there are only 12 sets of prints, laid down five decades ago by the few humans who crossed the gulf. And they will persist for millions of years, untold aeons beyond my life and your life and the times in which we live. If some future traveller should happen upon them, perhaps laying down their own prints alongside, what will they know of the journey that first left the prints there? Will they know of Aldrin’s famous footprint, and cast about debating which one was The Print? Or will they have utterly forgotten us and these days, the remains of Apollo on the Moon just curious forgotten relics of a civilization wiped away by time? What will they remember and know of us?

After 21 hours and 36 minutes on the surface of the Moon, Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off to rejoin Michael Collins, who had remained in lunar orbit. On their approach to dock with Collins, he snapped this picture of the lunar module over the surface of the Moon, with the Earth in the background sky. Collins famously remarked that this photograph was a picture of every person in the human race, except him. What a stunning observation, a perspective that reflects how small and alone we all can be in the face of the immensity of the Cosmos.

Apollo 11 image of the Earth and Moon behind Lunar Module Eagle, carrying Armstrong and Aldrin back from the lunar surface to command module Columbia. Michael Collins, aboard Columbia, noted that this was a picture of every human being except him. [Image: NASA]

Such images are not confined to cameras held by humans. Over the past six decades, we have hurled many robots into space, mechanical emissaries designed to carry our senses to places we cannot easily visit ourselves. Among that mechanical flotilla are eight explorers sent into the outer reaches of the solar system, to visit the giant, gaseous planets and even tiny Pluto. Among them is an 800 kilogram spider of wires, foil, antennae and cameras called Voyager 1. Today it is still faithfully travelling outward, gently probing the space around it to map out the invisible bubble that defines here, the neighborhood of the Sun, from there, the wildlands of interstellar space.  On 14 February 1990, a little more than nine years after its encounter with the planet Saturn, Voyager 1 was commanded to make one last photographic survey of the neighborhood it came from — a Family Portrait of all the worlds of the Sun.  Turning inward one last time, it snapped off sixty frames. Laid side by side, one over the next, the last pictures from Voyager built a unique and humbling portrait of our homeworlds.

Voyager 1’s family portrait of all the planets of the solar system. [Image: NASA]

Buried on one of these frames is a pale point of light, small and blue, easy to miss in the flared light of the Sun bursting though Voyager’s lens. That’s the Earth, our home in the vastness of the void. That small meager point of light inspired Carl Sagan to write one of the most poignant and eloquent  assessments of human nature ever penned. The “Pale Blue Dot” soliloquy can be found in the book of the same name, but in one of the great magics of the modern age, a recording of Sagan reading it has been found and preserved; it is as moving to listen to as it is to stare at the delicate fleck of light captured by a simple robot from 6 billion kilometers away.

The Pale Blue Dot; an image of Earth from Voyager 1’s “Family Portrait” sequence, and arguably one of the most famous pictures ever taken of Earth, noted for showing the smallness of the Earth in the immensity of the Cosmos. [Image: NASA]

When leafing through stacks of images from the Space Age, I’m struck by one very clear fact: there are no boundaries to the grandeur and ineffable wonder that can be captured on film. Each frame, each snapshot, each pixel, is a gift to future generations, a record of what we attempted, a record of what we aspired to, a record of what we risked during this time in history. On most days achievements like this stand in stark contrast with the lows our civilization has sunk to, and it is difficult to understand how both can be the legacy of the same species.

Some people look at images like these, and are nonplused. For them I weep. I hope they find wonder and awe in some other visions of the world, because the emotions and exhultations that these images evoke hearken to something deep in the soul, something I think we have lost in the modern morass of social media, reality TV, consumerism, and soundbites that claim to capture the quintessence of life. There is something deep and abidingly important in being able to see and experience amazing things and tremendous accomplishments, even in the face of serious and possibly overwhelming challenges to our way of life and our future on this planet. It provides a focal point for our aspirations to be better. It provides a poignant bludgeon of hope for the better selves that we aspire to be.

Other people look at these images, and all they see are dollars spent on endeavours they regard as frivolous. I can’t help but feel agony at such narrow visions of the world. In no small way, today’s world was made by these images. Not the images themselves, of course, but the thousands and thousands and thousands of hours of problem solving, prototyping, invention, innovation, creativity, and imagination required to make every one of these possible. We didn’t strap a gazillion dollars onto the side of Voyager and catapult it into space. We paid an army of engineers and as a result fed their families and sent their kids to school. We created entire new technologies, birthed companies that today make the backbone of the trillion dollar aerospace industry. We inspired a generation of children who wanted to be astronauts, but became enamoured with science and went on to become computer scientists, cancer specialists and brain surgeons, molecular biologists, ecological physicists, and aerospace engineers. I bet if you talk to many of today’s technical professionals, there is a time in their past where they swooned over pictures of the Moon.

The point is pictures are just one small return on each of the investments that were made to send people to the Moon, or to send a robot into the depthless void of space. Maybe you don’t think they’re interesting or the cost was worth it, but consider this: these are pictures we unfailingly recognize and know of — that simple recognizability is an indicator of the intrinsic and often unspoken value we as a society put on these ephemeral moments, captured forever as a frozen memento of places we once visited and knew and experienced.

Feeling Small in a Big Cosmos 03: Proverbs

by Shane L. Larson

On 19 April 1610, Johannes Kepler wrote an open letter to Galileo Galilei, musing on possible future voyages that would allow explorers — human explorers — to see what Galileo’s telescope had shown.  He mused that some day inventors might “provide ship or sails adapted to the heavenly breezes, and there will be some who will not fear even that void.” Kepler called on Galileo to join him in preparing the way for those so0n to be travellers, and create a new science to light their way: astronomy.

Yuri Gagarin and the Vostok 1 launch on 12 April 1961.

Yuri Gagarin and the Vostok 1 launch on 12 April 1961.

It was almost exactly 351 years before Kepler’s speculations were realized — on 12 April 1961 the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space. In a flight that lasted only 108 minutes, Gagarin orbited the Earth in a capsule bearing the callsign Kedr (“Cedar”), and initiated The Space Age.

Kepler’s poetic  words are a testament to our visceral desire to know the Cosmos. Gagarin was perhaps no less poetic when, in the middle of the launch, he belted out an exclamation of joy born from the same deep well of emotional longing — Gagarin’s hearty “Poyekhali!” (“Let’s go!”) ushered in a new era in the history of our species — the beginning of our quest to walk among the stars.

The Cosmos is vast, and nothing makes that point more abundantly clear than contemplating long journeys by humans into space. Trying to protect and sustain our fragile bodies for the duration of a long space voyage brings into sharp focus a single, glaring fact: we are designed for Earth, not for the void, not for alien landscapes, not for far-off icy moons. Despite all the tantalizing things we can see, it seems Nature never intended us to stray far from the small Blue Marble of Earth. We shouldn’t feel bad about that; it is also true for starfish, and seagulls, and housecats, and pine trees.

Every spaceprobe we have ever flung into space has returned remarkable pictures, and made new discoveries. Top to bottom: Mariner 4 was the first to flyby Mars, and returned the first pictures of the Red Planet's surface. The Soviet Venera 9 was the first to send pictures back from the surface of Venus; it survived for only 53 minutes. The Sojourner rover was the first spacecraft to move around Mars, in 1997. In November 2014, the lander Philae was the first spacecraft to land on a comet.

Every spaceprobe we have ever flung into space has returned remarkable pictures, and made new discoveries. Top to bottom: Mariner 4 was the first to flyby Mars, and returned the first pictures of the Red Planet’s surface. The Soviet Venera 9 was the first to send pictures back from the surface of Venus; it survived for only 53 minutes. The Sojourner rover was the first spacecraft to move around Mars, in 1997. In November 2014, the lander Philae was the first spacecraft to land on a comet.

But humans are a particularly stubborn and imaginative species. We could easily abandon the dream of travelling beyond Earth, but instead we designed and built machines to make the voyage for us. Our knowledge of the Cosmos today is largely populated by images collected by semi-intelligent robots built to be our eyes and ears. They have travelled where we cannot, and faithfully returned images which are arguably the most artistic, the most beautiful, the most stunning, the most confusing, the most awe-inspiring, and the most thought-provoking things humans have ever seen.

spacecraft_highresFor every space probe we have thrown into space, for every world they have visited, for every picture they have snapped, there is a tale to tell. All of them unique, all of them stirring. Let’s revisit the tale of one spacecraft that has been outbound now for almost 38 years; a spacecraft called Voyager 1.

Launched on a bright September morning in 1977, Voyager set sail for the outer solar system. Its mission was to visit Jupiter and Saturn and tell us what it discovered, and then to begin a long slow march into space, searching for the edge of the solar system. Voyager returned tens of thousands of pictures during its mission, but I find two particularly compelling.

In February of 1979, as Voyager was speeding toward its encounter with Jupiter, it snapped this photo: the most exquisite and detailed image of the iconic Great Red Spot ever taken. Voyager showed us the magnificent swirl and drift of the clouds on Jupiter, bands of colorful and dynamic gas driven by 600 kilometer per hour winds around the boundaries of a 400 year old hurricane twice the size of the Earth. This is a storm that,  before we turned our eyes to the skies, our species had never encountered nor imagined. But Voyager painted it for us, indelibly etching it into our memory, with a casual snap of a camera.

Voyager I view of the Great Red Spot as it approached Jupiter in 1979.

Voyager I view of the Great Red Spot as it approached Jupiter in 1979 [Image: NASA].

I like this picture because, to the unknowing eye, one might assume that it is a painting, made by an Earthbound artist, trying to capture or evoke some deep feeling or emotion about the human condition. But this was not painted by human hands. This is Nature painting, using a planet as its canvas.

After sailing past Jupiter, Voyager sped on to Saturn, where it took even more pictures and uncovered more mysteries, painting new pictures of a gentle giant bejeweled by a ring of ice. The encounter with Saturn ultimately propelled it on a course to carry it out of our solar system and into interstellar space. On Valentine’s Day in 1990, right after Voyager crossed the orbit of Neptune, we commanded it to turn its cameras inward and take one last series of pictures before they were turned off. In a sequence of 60 pictures, Voyager snapped a family portrait — a stitched panorama that contains every planet of the Solar System, the family of the Sun. This is the frame that contains the Earth. Like the Blue Marble, it is one of the most iconic images of Earth ever taken, dubbed The Pale Blue Dot.

The Pale Blue Dot -- the frame from the Voyager family portrait that includes the Earth [Image: NASA].

The Pale Blue Dot — the frame from the Voyager family portrait that includes the Earth [Image: NASA].

More than any other picture, this captures how small and tiny the Earth is. Voyager wasn’t even out of the solar system when it took this picture. In a Cosmic sense it was still close to home, and already the Earth was nothing bigger than a small fleck of light that if we weren’t looking for it, we may not have noticed.  Everything you’ve ever known is inside that dot.

This is the Earth. It’s tiny. And what I find most remarkable when I look at this image: there is nothing in this picture to indicate there is anything special about this planet. Nothing to indicate there is life there, nothing to indicate that we are there, nothing to indicate that this is where Voyager hails from. This one picture captures indelibly in a single frame the fact that we are small, in a Cosmic sense. Some days, we might feel despondent and overwhelmed by the immensity of it all.

The Voyager Golden Record.

The Voyager Golden Record.

But Voyager also carries a sign of our optimism about belonging to a much larger Cosmos. Bolted onto its side, is a Golden Record. It is a phonograph record, a message to anyone who might stumble on Voyager in the distant future, long after its electronics have died and it becomes little more than a fleck of space junk drifting aimlessly through the galaxy. Should someone find Voyager and its Golden Record,  they would find information about the record, and instructions for playing it. Included in those instructions is a map of the galaxy, pointing back to Voyager’s point of origin. On the reverse, etched in golden grooves that will survive a million year journey into the void, is a collection of data about us, and about our world. It includes greetings recorded in 55 languages of Earth. It includes 115 images from the planet Earth from the time when Voyager set sail into the Cosmos. It includes 90 minutes of music from our civilization. And engraved on the inner edge is a single sentence, in English, that reads “To the makers of music, all worlds, all times.”

This is not the kind of thing  you make and throw out into the vast sea of the Cosmos if you are hiding from the immensity of the Universe. Voyager will outlast every person alive on Earth today. It will outlast every one of us, every person who selected music or pictures to be included on this Golden Record. It will outlast our entire civilization. But some part of us can imagine — hopes — that Voyager will survive and be found, and tell the tale of who we are. Perhaps those listeners will be unimaginable alien intelligences; perhaps they will be our descendants who have utterly forgotten us and our civilization.

Voyager and all the other robotic spacecraft we have built are magnificent creations. We can look at them and be amazed that they have gone so far and seen so much. The very existence of pictures like those I have shown you, and literally millions of others like them, should convince you that we can do anything. We can solve any problem we face, we can uncover any mystery the Cosmos puts before us.

Which leads to one last, important thought. Let’s go back to where we started, thinking about the 10 billion billion grains of sand on Earth, and the 10,000 billion billion stars in the Cosmos.


Consider: in just ten drops of water, splashed on your window in a summer rainstorm, there are as many molecules of water as there are stars in the entire Universe. You have heard that every one of us is made of 50%-60% water. Which means there are 100,000 times more molecules of water in your body than there are stars in the entire Universe.

And every molecule of water has two atoms of hydrogen, which is what the stars are made of. And the other atom in every molecule of water is oxygen, which was made by stars, burning hydrogen. At the end of their lives, those stars exploded and threw all that they were back out into the Cosmos to eventually become all that you and I are.

In a very real way, you are atoms the Universe has assembled to look at itself. You are atoms that have been organized to look out into the Cosmos and ask the question, “What’s the deal with all those other atoms?

You are the Cosmos made manifest.

You are a way the Cosmos has organized itself to ask those questions that humans have always asked. Where did we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? And what is our role to play in the enormous universe all around us?

We’re not different than all those other galaxies, than all those other stars, than all those other grains of sand. We’re all made of the same star stuff.

There is a meme that floats around the internet that is a purported Serbian proverb (1). “Be humble, you are made of the Earth. Be noble, you are made of the stars.

It’s okay to feel small. We are small, so we should be humble. We don’t know all there is to know about the Universe.  But be noble, because you are made of the stars. You and I are members of the only species we know that is capable of asking the questions we ask, of figuring things out and asking new questions. It’s very empowering and an important part of who we are. It’s something I think we tend to forget; we get caught up in our problems and in our concerns every single day. But just like artists, scientists, and clergy, we are all true seekers. We’re just trying to understand what our place in the Cosmos really is.

— (1) I have been unable to indeed verify that this is a proverb from Serbian culture! I would love it if someone actually knew where this came from!


This post is the last in a series of three that capture the discussion in a talk I had the great pleasure of giving for Illinois Humanities as part of their Elective Studies series, a program that seeks to mix artists with people far outside their normal community, to stimulate discussion and new ideas for everyone.  The first post can be found here:  http://wp.me/p19G0g-xB

Illinois Humanities taped this talk and you can watch it online;  many thanks to David Thomas for doing the videography!